Southern Baptist missionary Nathan Price's wife and four daughters tell the story of their move to the Congo, its effect on their lives, and how each of them reacted and changed as a result. When the family moves in 1959, they take with them their Southern ways, their strong religious beliefs, and their preconceptions about dark-skinned people who in their own southern society have not yet been integrated by the civil rights movement. Orleanna, the mother, has her life laid out protecting her children and supporting her husband – that which she is expected to do. Her eldest daughter is the teenaged Rachel, who is already beginning to take interest in make-up and boys. Next come the twins Leah and Adah, both intelligent, yet not quite the same due to Adah's physical disability. Last is Ruthie May, the baby, who once arrived, will never leave.
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All five observe the overwhelming welcome of their village, and the struggles of their father with his preconceived notions of right and wrong that are all too narrowly adapted to his former home, both environmentally and culturally. In one instance, for example, the villagers don't want to be baptized in the river; yet he does not understand that it is because they have lost several children to alligators there, not necessarily because they oppose baptism per say. And yet he lacks the openness and cultural adaptiveness to establish a strong bond with the African villagers on equal terms, or to fully understand that they have anything of value to impart to him.
Each of his four daughters respond differently to their time in Africa, and their life journeys differ as a result. The eldest, Rachel, emerges with the most clearly colonialist mentality. She seeks western comforts and wealth, and has no qualms about taking advantage of others or pushing her way to the top. She believes in white superiority. At one point, the village's chief offers to marry her as a diplomatic act meant as a kindness to the family – she would be taken care of and fed, with less effort from her struggling family. Rachel is horrified and capitalizes on her father's dislike of this proposal to refuse, later marrying a white trader. She builds a hotel in Africa, becomes wealthy, and later divorces her husband. Rachel was neither the first nor the last to see Africa as a means to her own end, without ever fully recognizing Africa's inherent beauty.
Leah perhaps understands Africa the best of them, though at a cost. She bonds with the villagers more than the others, especially with a young man who she later marries. Both of them must find middle ground culturally to make this work; he does not take on other wives for example, and she adapts to life in Africa in other ways. When they visit those family members who have returned to the states, people stare at her husband, unused to his dress and to the traditional markings on his face. Their children have inherited from both worlds, and yet cannot fully occupy a place in either one. They are too light to be seen as entirely Congolese, yet too dark to be considered white. Their family knows of prejudice, and of worlds apart that no one else can understand.
Ada returns to the United States and studies to become a doctor. She is able to cure herself of her disability, but with it, she also loses her unique way of thinking, represented most frequently earlier in the book by word games, especially palindromes. At that time, the colleague who aided her in this accomplishment falls in love with her, but she rejects him; she understands at that point that no one can truly understand her for who she is, which includes the earlier genius behind her “disabled” self. Her experience represents an element of Africa's experience under Colonialism. Many people from western countries, governments, or individuals tried to change Africa to become a “better” or “more enlightened” version of itself according to what they wanted to see, and not according to what was really beneath the surface.
Ruthie May never returns; she dies while in Africa. Her mother compares Ruthie May's experience to Africa's unheard voice, the one that most fully represents what Africa is, and the one that so few people actually hear. Orleanna Price does not know what to make of herself. Is she guilty of all Africa has suffered because of her family? Was she merely an individual who had no control, or could she have done something more for herself, for her children, and for Africa?
As for the village where they began and where they spent their time as a complete family in the Congo? It disappeared, as many small villages do. When family members return years later, the forest has grown in and the people have forgotten. No one even remembers the thriving village that once welcomed them.
Best part of story, including ending:
Within a novel format, Kingsolver attempts to approach issues Africa faced during a critical time in its history, as colonialism was ending and today's African countries were beginning to emerge. She does so with a powerful voice (which divides itself between the five Price women) that encourages the reader to better understand and sympathize with Africa and its people, especially those of the area she discusses.
Best scene in story:
The ending nearly made me cry the first time I read it. The Canadian province of Quebec has a motto: "Je me souviens." "I remember." Yet here, the Congolese people living near their former village have forgotten, and there is no village there. At the same time, however, the Price women have not forgotten, and never will. What was once tangible to them must now be kept in their hearts so that they can learn from it and teach others in whatever ways they can.
Opinion about the main character:
Each Price woman (or girl) has her own character. Orleanna does what she thinks she must for her family; Rachel is rather annoyingly more self-centered; Leah is open-minded and accepting of others and recognizes their value; Ada is intelligent and discerning, but closed when she perceives others' lack of understanding; and Ruthie May is the innocent child who can only think according to what others have fed into her mind, but is not so much heard based on her own merit. Each represents different types of people that have always existed and continue to exist, and the virtues, pitfalls, advantages, and difficulties that go along with each.